When Eric Adelberg lost his sister four years ago, he got three new family members by adopting her pets: a miniature pinscher, a chihuahua and a nine-year-old cat.
“I just couldn’t let anybody take them away from the family,” says Adelberg, who had previously avoided being a pet owner due to the associated costs.
The price of food and pet care became an additional challenge for Adelberg, who has been HIV-positive for 20 years and lives on a fixed income.
“My HIV is pretty much under control, my problem is with the medications,” Adelberg says. “I have a very difficult time tolerating any of the medications, so I’m usually pretty nauseous most of the day.”
Unable to work or even leave home on some days, Adelberg found the cost of pet care competing with his own needs, including a gluten-free diet that can be five times more expensive than standard food. Shortly after moving back to Atlanta in late 2010, Adelberg was accepted as a client of Pets Are Loving Support, the non-profit organization that helps people with chronic illnesses and the elderly take care of their animals.
“It’s just such an amazing service, and it’s made a difference in my life,” Adelberg says. “It’s been a godsend.”
Adelberg estimates that PALS helps him save about $1,400 annually, and, more importantly, keeps him united with his best friends — and his best form of therapy.
“They force me to get up off the couch and walk them, first of all, which keeps me moving,” says Adelberg, whose joints have been eroded by decades of HIV medications.
Pets Are Loving Support 2115 Liddell Drive NE Atlanta, GA 30324 404-876-PALS www.palsatlanta.org
PALS ‘Back to Oz’ Bingo Wednesday, Aug. 10, 7 p.m. Jungle 2115 Faulkner Road Atlanta, GA 30324
His animals also help him keep his sense of humor.
“Losing my sister, I feel like their presence is having my sister around,” he says. “I’m for sure that my sister lives in the mini pinscher. I mean, they’re just exactly alike — just a bitch, very difficult. I love them.”
Broadened but focused
Adelberg is one of the 500 clients served by PALS, which was founded in 1992 by two veterinarians who were volunteering for Project Open Hand and delivering food to critically ill people with HIV/AIDS.
“When they were delivering food to these people who had been diagnosed, they found that the only support they had were their pets,” says Kevin Bryant, who has been executive director of PALS for five years. “They were taking their own food and feeding their pets because that was their reason for living at that point.”
In addition to providing pet food each month, PALS also pays for flea and heart worm medications, yearly vet exams and partners with several veterinarians to offer discounted prices for clients. As the AIDS epidemic became less lethal with the arrival of effective medications, PALS broadened its scope to include all chronic illnesses, and, under Bryant’s leadership, the elderly.
Even with its expanded client base, PALS has never had to turn away a qualified applicant, Bryant says. The program only accepts seniors and people with chronic illnesses — from HIV/AIDS to cancer and bi-polar disorder — who make less than $25,000 annually and undergo a rigorous application process verifying their income and pet ownership.
“With any non-profit or government agency that offers free services, you’re going to have those who try to wiggle in or figure a way around the system,” Bryant says.
“We’ve had people say they have pets and they send in the paperwork and they don’t even have pets. We’ve had people where they would get the food and they would sell it, or they would say they had a dog that weighed 90 pounds and get a certain amount of food, and come to find out they had a dog that weighed 10 pounds.” PALS has also been affected by the sluggish economy.
“We’re getting by,” Bryant says with a sigh. “Donations are down, of course, especially this year.”
Bryant is PALS’s only paid staffer, and does everything from writing grants to funding sources such as PetSmart and Broadway Cares, to being the contact point for all 500 clients, to managing about 170 volunteers. The organization is always accepting help from people who want to deliver pet food to clients the first Saturday of each month, drive pets to vet appointments or care for animals while clients are in the hospital.
“I really enjoy it because you know that you’re helping, and it keeps an animal out of a shelter and in a good home,” says Zach Welch, a veterinarian technician who volunteers to deliver food to PALS clients each month. “It makes you feel better about yourself and let’s you know that you’ve got it pretty good.”
Bryant also has started fielding more calls from people who are unemployed and need assistance taking care of their pets.
“While I sympathize with them and I try to lead them in directions where they might find some [help], my hands are really tied,” Bryant says, “That would be stretching way too far for us and we don’t have the means to do that. If we did that, we would become basically a food bank.
“I can’t take away from someone who’s laid up at home and can’t get out, and take away from what our program was started out as,” he adds.
The face of PALS
PALS is funded by private donors, grants and, most notably, its monthly Bingo night, which is one of the longest-running gay events in Atlanta and has raised more than half a million dollars for PALS since January 1997. Jim Marks, better known by his drag alias of Bubba D. Licious, has been the force behind PALS fundraising, missing his first Bingo in fifteen years this past April due to his father’s death.
“I think it’s appropriate that Bubba, who is more dog-faced than most drag queens, is the face of PALS,” Marks says.
Joking aside, PALS Bingo is far more serious than the campy themes such as “Trailer Park Prom” and this month’s “Back to Oz” suggest.
PALS has become the largest monthly Bingo game in Georgia, and has maintained its popularity by partnering with other non-profit organizations, allowing them to sell $20 tickets to Bingo night and keep half the profits. Attendance at Bingo, which is held the second Wednesday of each month, has also picked up in the two years its been at Jungle, which hosts the event without any cost to PALS.
“Without that community support, we wouldn’t be functioning right now,” Bryant says of Jungle and the other businesses that support PALS. “If we were functioning, there would be a waiting list, just like there is with many other programs.”
Top photo: Noodle is this year’s ‘spokespet’ for PALS, which helps people with serious health conditions take care of their pets. (Photo courtesy PALS)